May 24 2006

Investigation as opposed to fishing

Published by at 1:14 pm under Oregon

The distinction between two types of information gathering has to be made up at the top, because a failure to understand it will result in a failure to grasp the import of the incident.

Investigation is specific, and it what we want and sometimes don’t get enough of. A law has been broken, and an officer has to probe the circumstances; or maybe information has been received that a law may be broken, and officers are trying to head off an event violent or dangerous. The point here is specificity: The officers are working on a specific incident by a specific person or group of people.

The alternative is fishing: Throwing the nets out there to see what might be pulled in. As anyone who fishes knows, this may be an interesting line of endeavor but it is hardly efficient. In a law enforcement context, it means trolling for masses of information. Since few of us manage to go for long in our modern, law-strewn, society, without breaking one, the ultimate idea is to have something on everyone, so those in charge can pick and choose who to harass or put away, and the concept of a “law abiding citizen” who has nothing to fear from the government becomes a thing of the past. Or at least, that’s the logical end conclusion when law enforcement goes fishing instead of investigating.

With that in mind, consider this from a letter posted on the city of Portland web site, by Mayor Tom Potter.

On Thursday, May 11, 2006, a Special Agent of the Portland Office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation stopped a City employee and showed her a badge and ID. He asked if she knew any City Council members. He asked if she would be willing to pass information to him relating to people who work for the City of Portland . He said that while he had duties in other areas, the agency was always interested in information relating to white collar crime and other things.

One important and legitimate role of the FBI is to investigate public corruption within government entities. For example, recently the FBI arrested a member of Congress for public corruption. But federal officials have told me they know of no public corruption in our city. Federal officials say they are conducting no investigation of the City of Portland.

The only conclusion I can draw is that the agent in question was trying to place an informant inside the offices of Portland ’s elected officials and employees, in order to inform on City Council and others.

The actions of the FBI – even if they are the actions of one agent acting on his own – come at an uneasy time for many Americans. In the past few weeks, we have learned that our phone records are not private, and conversations are monitored without warrants. Journalists exposing these actions have been threatened with prosecution.

Even if this incident is nothing more than the work of one overzealous agent, it represents an unacceptable mindset within the agency. When there is no information to indicate ANY public corruption on the part of City Council members or employees, the FBI has no legitimate role in surreptitiously monitoring elected officials and city employees. As a city, we will continue to cooperate with the FBI on investigating criminal activities and terrorism, to ensure our community is as safe as possible.

But in the absence of any reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing, I believe the FBI’s recent actions smack of “Big Brother.” Spying on local government without justification or cause is not acceptable to me. I hope it is not acceptable to you, either.

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